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gary mason

Almost a decade ago, New Yorker magazine published a piece by Malcolm Gladwell entitled Million-Dollar Murray. It chronicled the sad life of a loveable drunk named Murray Barr who lived on the streets of Reno, Nev.

The piece got its title from the amazing story that Mr. Gladwell had unearthed: Mr. Barr was a favourite of local police who had, for years, been throwing the happy-go-lucky homeless man in the drunk tank or taking him to hospital to deal with medical emergencies. Frustrated by the lack of social services available to help the man, police set out to establish just how much he was costing the system each year.

When they added up doctors' fees, police expenses, legal charges and other ancillary outlays, police determined the annual bill was about $100,000. Given that police had been dealing with the man for a decade or more, they figured the cost of doing nothing to help Murray Barr over that period was about $1-million.

We mention this in light of preliminary results of a new national study on homelessness that again confirm the value of getting people off the streets and into some form of housing.

Between 2009 and the spring of this year, the Vancouver component of the At Home study put 200 difficult-to-house, mentally ill people in apartments throughout the city. Another 100 were put in a downtown hotel similar to the single room occupancy lodging typically found in the Downtown Eastside. In this case, however, the hotel had on-site social and health services available. Another 200 formed a control group, living on the street with access to standard government support.

Participants were an average age of 41, largely male and had been homeless for at least five years. All had some type of mental illness and the majority had substance abuse issues.

Not surprisingly, those who received some form of housing fared the best during the study. However, individuals placed in apartments throughout the city and visited by health and social service representatives reported better outcomes than those living in the downtown hotel with on-site support. That included significantly lower rates of emergency room visits and fewer criminal convictions. As well, those housed on their own reported a better quality of life over all.

According to Julian Somers, a professor at Simon Fraser University and the report's lead investigator, study participants who were offered some form of housing used crisis services a third as often as those who were not. In writing about the results, Dr. Somers offered two recommendations based on his early findings.

"First, the interventions developed and introduced through Vancouver At Home produce significant benefits for participants, improve public safety and reduce the use of crisis and emergency procedures," he wrote in the online mental health journal Vision.

"These models of care work better than the status quo."

Many of the participants remain in the homes provided in the study. Dr. Somers said housing the homeless with assistance should become business as usual in the city. Given the results, there would certainly seem to be a business case for it.

Of course, that is unlikely to happen. It is difficult for politicians to shell out money at the front end for promised savings at the back. Additionally, governments must still fight persistent attitudes and prejudices that suggest giving homeless people free room and board is fundamentally wrong. As that thinking goes, it will only encourage more people with mental health and addiction issues to congregate in cities where this assistance is offered.

This is likely not the last we hear about the At Home study. A fuller report is expected in the coming months. But it has already been warmly received at Vancouver city hall, where Mayor Gregor Robertson has waged a war on homelessness and made helping the thousands wandering the city's streets with mental health issues his priority.

The fact is, Murray Barrs are everywhere. It would take you five minutes to find a version of him in downtown Vancouver. The question is not can we afford to house people like this. The question is can we afford not to.